New York Times Touts ‘Plain Packaging,’ Downplays Impact of Taxes on Tobacco

The New York Times thinks regulations like tobacco packaging laws will reduce smoking, and a recent business story on the subject made that case while downplaying other factors.

Michelle Innis of the Times claimed that Australia’s “plain packaging laws,” which are regulations that eliminate logos on cigarette packs in favor of graphic images of cancerous lungs or dying smokers, seem “to be working.” But her Times’ Business section story from June 11 stumbled over the data.

Innis suggested Australia’s laws reduced tobacco usage, but tobacco consumption actually increased slightly until a December 2013 tobacco tax was instituted. This error mirrored the Times’ repeated editorials attacking the tobacco industry and supporting plain packaging and graphic warning laws. 

Despite the Times’ assertion, rates of smoking actually increased slightly after plain packaging was introduced in Australia. This misleading article came after the Times printed 24 editorials in two years, insisting that “stronger, graphic warnings could save lives” and are a “simple and proven way to reduce tobacco usage.”

Innis wrote that “Australia’s landmark cigarette legislation banning logos and putting dire health warnings… seems to be working.” She paraphrased Stephen Koukoulas, Managing Director of the economic research firm Market Economics Pty Ltd, as saying “tobacco consumption seemed to have dropped in the 15 months since the packaging law.”

But Innis’ praise of packaging laws downplayed the impact of taxes on tobacco products and the steady decline in tobacco use for years beforehand. According to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), while the rate of tobacco consumption did drop slightly (2.9 percent) between the December 2012 packaging law and March 2014, it had actually increased until December 2013. In December 2013, the Australian government began phasing in a 12.5 percent tax increase on tobacco, and tobacco consumption dropped more than 2 percent in just three months.

Australian tobacco consumption declined steadily for over a decade, according to the ABS. Since 2000, Australian tobacco consumption fell by 25.8 percent, a dramatically higher rate than Innis’ 2.9 percent decline.

In December 2013, Business Standard reported on a study by tobacco company auditor KPMG which found that “Australia has been unsuccessful in reducing smoking rates.”

While Innis cited Koukoulas as praising plain packaging laws, he said “high taxes and laws that restrict where you can smoke” also contributed to falling consumption. But her story downplayed the role of taxes, burying a section on tax hikes at the end of the article and not linking them to falling consumption.

Innis’ article supported plain packaging laws, something the Times’ had praised time and again in editorial attacks against tobacco. Since June 2012, the Times published 24 editorials bashing tobacco and promoting its regulation. Eight of those editorials specifically pushed graphic or plain packaging laws.

On April 18, 2014, the Times described a Chinese proposal to mandate graphic images as a “simple and proven way to reduce tobacco usage,” and called on the Chinese government to institute that law. Similarly, on Nov. 29, 2013, the editorial board declared that “stronger, graphic warnings could save lives.”

On April 29, 2013, another editorial pushed the FDA to “develop stronger evidence that graphic images will reduce” tobacco consumption, after the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled there wasn’t sufficient evidence for packaging laws in August 2012.

The Times had also urged Congress to act against tobacco, whether by restricting free trade agreements, banning advertisements and restricting the burgeoning e-cigarette market. On Feb. 7, 2014, it praised CVS Caremark for pulling cigarettes from stores and said “Congress ought to explore possible legislation prohibiting tobacco sales in all pharmacies.”

Far from reducing smoking, some say graphic warnings may actually increase smoking among regular smokers. Dr. Art Markman, writing for the Huffington Post, cited a January 2010 study that found that many regular smokers actually “rated smoking as much more attractive if they read a warning that focused on death.”

The same KPMG study that Business Standard reported on also revealed some unintended consequences of plain packaging. It found significantly “increased sales of illicit tobacco,” undermining the purpose of the law and the safety standards of tobacco regulation.

Australia’s laws are also being challenged in court. Breitbart London reported on June 10, 2014, that five countries had even filed suits against Australia and the World Trade Organization “regarding intellectual property rights, especially trademarks.”

Sean Long
Sean Long is a former writer for MRC Business.